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Matric quality has grim effect on universities

Basic Education Minister

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga

There is relentless cynicism about the quality of public education in the country. The pass requirement for a National Senior Certificate is just 30% for most subjects, school infrastructure remains poor in many disadvantaged areas, the teachers’ unions cause their own difficulties and there are service delivery scandals in places such as Limpopo and the Eastern Cape.

The Department of Basic Education must have anticipated that it would met with coldness once it announced the 2013 matric results.

This did not dampen the spirits of Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga. She called the latest results the best since the beginning of democracy, announcing a pass rate of 78.2%, up from 73.9% in 2012.

“When we came into office, we had targeted 75% by 2014. Now we have surpassed our target with a year to go. Well done to the class of 2013,” she said.

She also said the percentage of matric exemptions, which are necessary for university entrance, had increased to 30.6%, up from 26.6% in 2012 and 25.3% in 2011.

Detractors have asked if a matric certificate is worth anything. The department bristles at such questions, but with unemployment and poverty being what it is, it is one that needs careful answering.

I was told by an academic that even matriculants who made it into university showed signs of not having been properly equipped by the schooling system. University dropout rates tell a grim story.

According to data published by the Council on Higher Education, a statutory body that advises the education minister, the dropout rate for students studying three- and four-year degrees was 46% in 2010, and largely the same in 2005. That figure excludes Unisa, where degrees typically take longer to complete as it is a long-distance institute, but the story gets much worse if you add those numbers.

Keep in mind that those who make it to university represent less than a third of those who finish school in the first place. This is not a great picture.

Another way of contextualising the matric results is to look at the total number of dropouts, from the first grade. In 2011, the Department of Basic Education reported to the portfolio committee on education and said the dropout rate was relatively low, until the last grades of high school.

According to the department’s Report on Dropout and Learner Retention Strategy, in 2009 the dropout rate remained below 7.5% from grades 1 to 7, where it then jumped up. By Grade 10, the rate was 17.2%, by Grade 11 it was 16.2% and in the last year it was 8.2%.

This translates to a slim chance that a child beginning in the first grade will obtain university exemption by the end of a public schooling career. It strongly suggests the quality of that education isn’t brilliant.

“And yet, after the applause has died down; after the triumphant follow-up interviews and advertorials; after the usual suspects have finished scolding the government of the day in opinion pieces and talk shows (yours truly included), one question will remain. It is a question we all feel in our guts, but one we are often embarrassed to pose, let alone attempt to answer. Can the matric certificate still be trusted?” asked Tinyiko Maluleke, deputy vice-chancellor of internationalisation, advancement and student affairs at the University of Johannesburg, this week in an op-ed article.

He said universities took matric results with a pinch of salt and did what they could to support those who struggled at the next level.

And this is a grim reality. The dropout rate combined with the poor quality of matric is not a problem to be solved by just making universities accept the students.

Earlier in the year, the department asked for public comment with regards to schools — one hopes the minister heard all the calls for a higher pass mark, better learner support, and improved infrastructure and service delivery.

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